When it opened in 1956, General Motors Technical Center was lauded as a place where “today meets tomorrow.” The 710 acre complex in Warren is home to 61 buildings and a 22,000 acre lake, cost about $US100 million to build and symbolized America’s and Detroit’s industrial might, innovation and optimism. When it opened, over 5,000 leaders in engineering and science came for the dedication ceremony and over 180,000 people visited the Center over the next two days. Designed by Eero Saarinen, whose work also included the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport in New York, designed what is now recognized as one of the largest modernist architectural masterpieces in the U.S. As noted during a talk Triple Pundit attended at Modernism Week in Palm Springs, the Technical Center is a leading example of mid-century architecture in Michigan, where much of this shift in design has much of its origins.
For the most part the Technical Center looks the way it did almost 60 years later. Some of the original interiors were lost, but for the most part this “Versailles of Industry” is still intact and screams more of a Mad Men than Chevy Volt vibe. The Center still is the locus of GM’s research and development and is the work address for 19,000 employees. While the function of the complex has not changed, the complex is slowly undergoing a green upgrade reflective of what more 21st century employees are seeking in their work environment.
The first things visitors will notice (once the especially bitter Michigan winter subsides) are the bicycles that employees ride to commute between buildings. Launched last year, the on-campus bicycle sharing program, operated by Zagster, offers employees the opportunity to score a little more exercise while overall worker productivity has improved thanks to reduced waits from avoiding a long walk or shuttle ride.
Such a sprawling network of buildings requires massive amounts of energy, especially when considering all the data the company stores online. To that end, GM revamped the data center within the complex, leading to a LEED gold certification and the elimination of a larger heating and cooling system—or as a GM representative has been quoted, its redesign nixed the equivalent of a football field sized room of batteries. Energy efficiency has also scored a small boost from a 49 kilowatt solar array within the center.
While next generation technology is coded and hammered out inside, 30 acres within the complex have recently been certified as wildlife habitat on the outside. Duck boxes made out of repurposed Chevy Volt battery cases are scattered around the complex, and additional man-made lakes regularly attract migratory birds. Trees outline the perimeter of the center while more “no-mow” spaces have been designated to encourage the growth of native plants.
As GM expands its zero-waste program worldwide, this massive complex continues to reduce waste and encourage recycling: at last count the total waste generated within the Technical Center has decreased 35 percent.
GM, as has the American automobile industry at large, has taken its lumps the past 30 years. But the Technical Center has been a steady constant as the company retooled, restructured and adjusted to the changing demands from consumers. It may no longer be the world’s largest car company, but GM continues to attract leading scientists and engineers, and still reflects the vision of Charles Kettering, who was head of research at GM from 1920 to 1947. When the first plans were drawn up for the Technical Center during the 1940s, Kettering made it clear he wanted solid buildings with streamlined design that would encourage innovative thinking. “I don’t want fancy,” was a mantra he kept repeating during the Center’s conception. Hardly fancy, the straight lines and graceful curves that are a rule the complex have been largely untouched—only now they are undergoing a sustainable upgrade necessary at a time of diminishing resources and increased demands for efficiency.
Based in California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Image credits: Michigan Modern